Media theorist Roger Silverstone wrote in 1999: "The technologies that have emerged in recent years, principally but not exclusively digital technologies, are new. They do new things. They give new powers. They create new consequences for human beings…" (p.10). This paper endorses that perspective—especially the notion that communication has consequences—and seeks to better understand how scholars have conceptualized those consequences from an ethical perspective. In particular, there is a need to more fully categorize the different types of existing scholarship that are specifically concerned with the ethics of computer-mediated communication (CMC).
For those of us professionally involved in mass communication ethics, scholarship on the ethical ramifications of CMC is likely to be found in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics (JMME). Founded in 1985, this journal also began during an era of much technological change which has continued to the present day. As Beam, Weaver and Brownlee (2009) have noted, drawing from their survey of 400 journalists in 2002 and again in 2007, journalists are growing more concerned with ethical issues. Scholars in the field of media ethics are certainly concerned with ethics, too, but I believe there is a need to better understand the extent to which they are directly grappling with concerns about the ethical ramifications of computer-mediated communication. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is two-fold: 1) to identify which aspects of computer-mediated communication are being focused on in the JMME literature; 2) to examine where, geographically, the scholarship is being produced. This appears an optimal time to take stock of the ethics scholarship related to CMC; to better understand where we have been, where we are and where we may be going in this emerging subfield of mass communication ethics research.
The titles and abstracts of 386 articles in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics were examined beginning with Volume 1, Issue 1 (Fall/Winter 1985) and continued with each issue though Volume 23, Issue 4 (Oct/Dec 2008). At least one issue of the journal has been published every year since 1985 and, as of 2009, the journal started to appear quarterly. Cases/Commentaries, book reviews and forewords were each excluded from this study, because the focus was on research articles.
Titles and abstracts were chosen as the units of analysis on the grounds that they are particularly instructive when working toward an overview of research produced in a given journal. Titles are crucial; they point a particular work in a distinct direction and often suggest the most important aspect, or aspects, of a given inquiry. Titles arguably have a particularly instructive quality in an emerging field, where the boundaries of knowledge are still developing. Computer-mediated communication is one such field. Abstracts, on the other hand, summarize the framework and key outcomes of a research inquiry. Taken together, the title and abstract provide a useful lens through which to perform an analysis. These two elements arguably provide a "birds-eye view" of the work being done in each article.
Titles and abstracts were each coded for the presence or absence of a keyword, which suggested that the article focused on computer-mediated communication or very closely related technological issues.
To be included, relevant keywords had to meet at least one of two criteria: First, those suggesting the nature of the communication as computer-mediated in some way. Keywords in this category were: computer; cyberspace; digital; information superhighway; Internet; net; new media; new technology; surfing; technology; and virtual. Second, those referring to some aspect, type or platform of computer-mediated communication. Keywords in this category were: blog; blogger; blogging; electronic mail; e-mail; Facebook; hyperlink; link; LinkedIn; microblog; MySpace; newsgroup; online social network; social network; social networking; Twitter; and YouTube. In each category, plural or derivative forms of the keywords were also considered relevant. I was unable to find, and am not aware of, a widely accepted list of computer-mediated communication terms, which necessitated my creation of the above list. Admittedly, the selection of these keywords perhaps leaves some relevant titles out of the sample, but every effort was made to be as inclusive as possible.
In addition to the titles and abstracts that met the above criteria, the affiliations of the author(s) were recorded, noting the home institution and (if unclear) its country. While the relevant keywords were selected in order to better understand what kind of CMC scholarship was being published in JMME, the author(s) institution and country of origin help better understand where the scholars were located when they produced that research. Building on this knowledge, articles in the sample were then organized chronologically. Although titles and abstracts, author affiliations and the article chronology provide some insight into the nature of computer-mediated communication scholarship in JMME, the titles and abstracts were further organized into 18 content categories in order to add to the richness of the analyses. Content categories were devised by taking into account a variety of factors, including the titles and abstracts themselves, the year when content was produced, the geographic location of authors or the type of affiliation of scholars (academic, professional or industry) who produced it.
Findings and Discussion
Forty-one titles and 55 abstracts met the criteria for inclusion in this study. These constituted 10.6 % and 14.2 %, respectively, of the total number of articles (n=386) published in JMME from 1985 to 2008.
Overall Content Categories
Prominent among the 18 content categories (those with at least five abstracts) were: Digital Photography (7); Specific Platform or Technology (7); Digital Virtual Reality (5); Online Journalism (5) and Privacy (5). Digital Photography is particularly notable because this category included scholarship from all three decades (1980s, 1990s and 2000s), while Online Journalism included scholarship only from the 1990s and early 2000s. The Specific Platform or Technology category also appeared in these two decades, and varied according to decade. In the 1990s, the focus was on Facsimile; Audiotex; Email and Listservs, while the four articles from the new millennium each focused on blogging.
The articles selected for this paper were—for the most part—produced by scholars working in institutions in the United States. Fifty of 55 included articles were produced entirely by individuals with American affiliations. The non-U. S. countries represented were: Australia (1); Great Britain (1); the Netherlands (2) and Taiwan (1). Among the five articles with at least one author who had an international location or affiliation, three of those articles had at least one American collaborator, and two were authored entirely by a scholar, or scholars, working in a foreign institution.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
Titles and abstracts each certainly have limitations. Titles are bound by space considerations, which often do not make it possible to go in-depth on a particular topic. Some titles are more informative than others. As a result, it is not surprising that titles in this study do not appear to emphasize particular historical, political, social or professional events. Abstracts, too, have their shortcomings. An author may refer to a relevant issue, or develop it in a meaningful way, and yet not have the space to mention it within the boundaries of an abstract.
Nonetheless, this study raised three areas for future scholarship: (1) The need to better understand early silences in the literature. (2) The need to further investigate the lessons of digital photography—especially as they relate to deception. (3) The need to build international scholarship in this U. S.-dominated subfield. As CMC scholarship in JMME enters its fifth decade, new work in each of these directions can help more fully map the ethical landscape of the rapidly advancing field of computer-mediated communication.
Beam, R. A., Weaver, D. H., & Brownlee, B. J. (2009). “Changes in Professionalism of U. S. Journalists in the Turbulent Twenty-First Century.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 86(2), pp. 277-298.
Silverstone, R. (1999). “What's new about new media?” New Media & Society, 1(1), p. 10.